Lots of Democrats in Charlottesville and Albemarle County don’t like being in a Republican congressional district.
Now that the redistricting process is before the Virginia Supreme Court, they’ve filed lots of comments asking for the lines to be drawn differently.
Many of them, though, have unrealistic notions of what is cartographically possible. There is one possible way that these voters might get their wish to be in a Democratic-leaning district – or even just a competitive one – but it might involve exactly the kind of gerrymandering that the state’s new redistricting process was set up to avoid. All depends on what your definition of gerrymandering is.
Charlottesville and Albemarle County are two blue enclaves that are surrounded by red localities. The current 5th District, which runs from the North Carolina line to within a few miles of the state’s northern border, is clearly a district that’s not geographically coherent. But is there a way to redraw lines that puts Charlottesville and Albemarle in a more Democratic-friendly district? And, if so, what would the effect be on other districts?
Let’s look at some of the requests the court has received.
James Pyles of Crozet writes to the Supreme Court: “Charlottesville and Albemarle County should be in their own Congressional District. This is an opportunity for you to make Virginia great again.”
This is not happening. The ideal size of a congressional district under this redistricting is a population of 768,588. Albemarle has 112,395 people, Charlottesville has 46,553. Together that’s 158,948. That means, Charlottesville and Albemarle will be a minority of whatever district they’re in, accounting for just under 21% of the population. The question is what other localities they are attached to. On that score, many of the people writing the court make it plain they want nothing to do with Southside.
“The current fifth lumps us into a New Jersey-sized monolith, meaning we have no common interests, too, with other parts of the district, including Southside and Fauquier,” writes Robert Beard of Charlottesville.
“For too long, Charlottesville has been stranded in districts designed to dilute its political influence by linking it with totally unrelated communities,” writes Erik Linstrum of Charlottesville. “Southside Virginia, stretching all the way to the North Carolina border, is far more rural and culturally conservative. So is the Shenandoah Valley on the other side of the Blue Ridge.”
“Please make sure we are not chopped up and lumped in with rural voters from Southside, Greene, and Madison,” writes Martha Miller.
Umm, Charlottesville and Albemarle will have to get lumped in with somebody and no matter which way the map is drawn, those other somebodies will be rural. That’s just geography, folks.
Many writers complained about how Albemarle County is split among four House of Delegates districts at the state level, with two of those anchored west of the Blue Ridge in the Shenandoah Valley, and said they hoped a new congressional district wouldn’t cross the mountains, either.
“Please do not split Charlottesville and Albemarle county into two districts, or combine Albemarle County with a Congressional district in the Shenandoah Valley,” writes Barbara Gehrung of Charlottesville. So does Allen Baker: “I live in Charlottesville and do not want my community split into 4/5 districts, or Albemarle County lumped into a Congressional district over the mountain.”
It seems perfectly reasonable not to want a district that crosses the Blue Ridge. In fact, in an earlier column I laid that out as a principle I thought the court should follow for both congressional districts and state legislative districts. It’s harder to avoid with congressional districts, though, since they’re bigger. It’s possible to draw a 9th District that’s entirely west of the Blue Ridge and it’s possible to draw a 6th District that’s entirely west of the Blue Ridge, but we’ll have to see if the Supreme Court justices share my view that mountains should only be crossed when absolutely necessary. There is precedent for connecting Charlottesville and Albemarle County with counties west of the Blue Ridge, although precedent isn’t always a good reason for doing things: From 1966 to 1991, Charlottesville and Albemarle were part of congressional districts that included parts of the Shenandoah Valley. Of course, we weren’t quite so politically polarized then. In 1968, Richard Nixon carried both Charlottesville and Albemarle by wide margins. As late as 2000, Albemarle County was voting Republican in presidential elections. Now it votes 66% Democratic. In any case, at one time there was believed to be some natural affinity between Charlottesville and the Shenandoah Valley but that’s probably not the case anymore.
So what district do Democrats in Charlottesville and Albemarle County want to be in? Several people suggest connecting Charlottesville and Albemarle with the Richmond suburbs. “As a Charlottesville resident, I want to voice my strong support for a central Virginia congressional district stretching from Charlottesville and Albemarle to the West End of Richmond,” Linstrum writes. “This is a genuine community of interest. Many colleagues and friends who work in Charlottesville live in Richmond and commute along I-64 every day. Like many Charlottesville residents, I shop in Richmond, visit Richmond’s museums and galleries, eat in Richmond’s restaurants, and fly out of the Richmond airport on a regular basis. … Greater Charlottesville is a racially diverse mix of urban and suburban, with an economy built around government, higher education, and finance, much like Richmond and its western suburbs. I hope the new map will respect these connections.”
That seems quite logical. It also seems quite political. Henrico County now votes Democratic. Richmond definitely votes Democratic. An I-64 district from Charlottesville to the West End would be quite Democratic – those Republican voters in the rural localities in between in Fluvanna, Louisa and Goochland would just be out of luck, much like the Democrats in the 5th District are now. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Henrico County, who faces a tough reelection campaign in her 7th District as currently drawn, would no doubt love this district.
That Charlottesville-to-Richmond district also raises this question: To what extent should the Virginia Supreme Court be concerned about political outcomes? Ideally not at all, right? Because once you start thinking about how a proposed district might vote, isn’t that how gerrymandering begins? But that’s sort of what a lot of these Democratic voters in Charlottesville and Albemarle seem to want.
“I have not felt represented in the past 8 years by the congressmen which were elected in this strangely tailored district,” Barbara Gehrung writes.
“As the 5th District is currently constituted, there is no hope of electing a Congressman who represents the predominant local views of Charlottesville/Albemarle County voters on major issues,” writes William C. Love Jr. “From my perspective, I do not currently have a Congressman that I can reasonably expect to seriously consider my views on such issues.”
“Because of how the congressional district is drawn, a conservative Republican has represented the 5th district for as long as I can remember,” Martha Miller writes. (She’s forgetting the two years that Democrat Tom Perriello was in office or the nine years that Democrat L.F. Payne was, when the 5th was shaped somewhat differently.) “The city of Charlottesville and surrounding Albemarle County deserve a Congressman who represents their views.”
I don’t mean to sound uncharitable but I’m probably going to sound uncharitable: Do Charlottesville and Albemarle really deserve a congressman who represents their views? They are one-fifth of the district and will be one-fifth of whatever district they’re in. I’m sure it’s frustrating to be a Democratic voter surrounded by all those Republican voters, but it’s probably also frustrating to be a Republican voter in, say, Arlington. Why are one-fifth of a district’s voters entitled to get the candidate they want? What about the other four-fifths?
Republicans a decade ago undoubtedly gerrymandered Albemarle County in the House of Delegates to reduce the influence of Democratic voters. That’s bad. And the 5th Congressional District as currently drawn is also gerrymandered. But it’s also unclear that a non-gerrymandered district would automatically put Charlottesville and Albemarle County in a Democratic district or even a competitive one. That Charlottesville-to-Richmond district makes a lot of sense, but there are some unintended consequences of that district – and I’m not talking political ones. An I-64 district would force the 5th District to stay south of the James River. That’s not a bad thing, except to make the numbers work out either of two things would have to happen. Either the 5th would have to go west of the Blue Ridge and take in part of what is now the 9th District (forcing the 9th to expand in other ways). Just as voters in Charlottesville and Albemarle don’t want to be part of a district on the other side of the mountains, presumably they don’t think Southside voters should be in a district that goes west of the mountains either (or Southwest voters in a district that goes east of the Blue Ridge). If the 5th can’t go north of the James River, or west of the Blue Ridge, then it has to go east, which means it starts eating into the 4th District, which is now 41% Black and has a Black congressman (Don McEachin, D-Richmond). If the 5th had to start taking in localities from the 4th, such as Greensville and Emporia, that would make it harder to draw a 4th District that complies with voting rights rulings. It would seem odd if white liberals in Charlottesville and Albemarle wanted to make it less likely that a Black Democrat would get elected in the 4th District. These are the trade-offs that any redistricting mapmakers are going to run into.
In an earlier column, I drew a 5th District that was composed entirely of Southside counties and specifically excised Charlottesville and Albemarle, although I never addressed where those localities should go. To avoid pushing the 5th District west over the Blue Ridge, or east into the 4th, I had no choice but to take in Fluvanna, Louisa and Goochland, which would be the easiest counties to connect Charlottesville and Albemarle with Richmond. It’s like when Facebook had a relationship status that said: “It’s complicated.”
Of all the people who commented, there was one who spoke against the kind of map that these Charlottesville and Albemarle voters want. Edward Strickler of Prince Edward County (and a former Albemarle resident) listened to one of the redistricting hearings online. He wrote to the court:
“Too many times in the live and recorded public hearings I heard city dwellers and metro area advocates discuss adjacent rural communities as foreigners to their interests and values. I did fewer times hear rural dwellers discuss metro areas as foreigners. Language selected and emphasized by the metro area residents/advocates too frequently, distressingly, veered toward stereotypical and prejudicial belittling, devaluing, and even fear mongering stereotyping of rural voters, rural values, and rural communities. …
“I heard today many Charlottesville and metro-area Albemarle County speakers relate that they have nothing in common with Buckingham County. So, they appear not to know or not to care that many of the working class and skilled workers at the University, in the UVA Health System and Martha Jefferson Sentara Health Systems and other workplaces – who do many of the dirty jobs – live in Buckingham County. And also in Augusta County (another county many metro-Charlottesville speakers considered foreigners.) But I also heard a Buckingham County Supervisor – who knows more about these strong ties with Scottsville (in Albemarle County) as the central market, health care, and other center for much of Buckingham County – tell the opposite story: that many Buckingham residents have a common ‘community of interest’ with Albemarle County and Charlottesville, where so many work, so many get health care, and so many find services they need.”
Strickler goes on to write: “My impression – formed over decades of work with many advisory bodies – is that affluent metro elites’ preconceptions and prejudicial appraisals of rural Virginia interests and values – as contrary to their interests – is not founded very much in fact but in selfish emotions. It was too hard, and too distressing, to consider that economic patterns that benefited/benefit metro areas for generations, while burdening rural areas for generations, were facts to deal with. Rather, instead, turn the situation around, emotionally, and consider, and sometimes publicly call rural Virginians ‘racists’, ‘rednecks’, ‘White trash’, ‘trailer trash’, ‘country trash’, and the like. Great and abundant public institutions, seated in larger and smaller metro areas, sparingly provide or seldom sustain economic development and outreach, clinics, practitioners, and specialists, educational enrichment and lifelong learning to advance along 21st century career ladders, and other benefits of their abundance into underserved rural areas.”
There’s a lot more there than just redistricting – but also perhaps a lot for everyone to think about, no matter how the lines are drawn.